November 19, 2013

By Dr. Maggie Ham and Dr. Albert Crimaldi Ph.D./Daily News Correspondents

The MetroWest Daily News

Posted Nov 19, 2013 @ 10:00 AM

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Dr. Maggie Ham and Dr. Albert Crimaldi Ph.D.

Affecting millions of Americans, hepatitis is a disease of the liver, one of the largest organs in the human body that’s responsible for critical bodily functions, such as the clotting of blood, resisting infections and clearing waste. It is a major cause of liver cancer and a leading cause of death by infection, claiming some 15,000 lives every year.

Understanding this condition requires some insight: the word hepatitis simply means an inflammation of the liver, and the disease can take various forms and result from distinctly different causes.

Hepatitis can be acute (lasting a short time) or chronic (recurring or persistent), and some acute forms can become chronic. It can be viral (caused by a virus) or non-viral (caused by a number of other factors, including genetic disorders, prescription or over-the-counter medications, alcohol, toxins or even the body’s own immune system). One form is even triggered by the buildup of fat cells in the liver. Illness from the disease can range from mild to severe. Some types require medication; some will clear the body naturally.

The viral form is widespread in the U.S. and has five strains (A, B, C, D, and E), each caused by a different virus. The most common types are A (usually caused by contaminated food or water) and B and C (spread by infected blood). According to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 70,000 people become infected every year with one type of acute viral hepatitis. In addition, about 1.2 million have chronic hepatitis B, and 3.2 million have chronic hepatitis C – and most of those are unaware they have the disease.

The CDC considers "hep C" a major public health threat because so many have the disease. Estimates are that 75 percent of those infected are baby boomers (those born between 1945 and 1965), believed to have contracted the disease in the 1970s and 1980s when the rates of hepatitis C were the highest, prior to both the availability of screening tests to eliminate hepatitis C from the blood supply and the heightened public awareness of hepatitis C virus transmission through high-risk activities such as intravenous (IV) drug use. Public health officials are urging everyone in that group to get tested, as testing is the only way to discover if the virus is present. Most people who get hepatitis C – a leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplants - end up with a chronic form of the illness.

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